31 May 2022

Capital Spending for Better Service

Wouldn't it be great if you could quantify the service benefit of capital improvements, to compare and prioritize them by how much better train service results?  We can, and using our handy Taktulator, we will. This service pattern evaluation tool was formulated around time-based service quality metrics. We use it to explore future improvements to the peninsula rail corridor.

Today's 2022 Timetable: 94 service points -- The current peak schedule with four diesel trains per hour features very generous padding and SF - SJ trip times ranging from 66 minutes (express) to 99 minutes (local). The less-than-100 score indicates that service quality has dropped since 2011 when there were five trains per peak hour. The Taktulator score is calibrated such that the 2011 Caltrain timetable scores exactly 100 points.

Caltrain's 2040 service vision foresees eight trains per peak hour per direction (not counting HSR). Let's start with a service frequency of 8 trains per hour-- except for the sake of exploring and quantifying the value of capital improvements, we'll start from a hypothetical case that will never happen: eight trains per hour of today's diesel service, making all local stops.

Hypothetical diesel all-stops local, 8 tph: Score = 109 service points (+16%) -- The doubling of hourly frequency improves the service score by 16%, despite each train being slower. The extra time riding an all-stops trains is more than offset by the much shorter wait time at the station. For example, maximum wait times in Belmont plummet from one hour to just 7.5 minutes. Unfortunately, this service pattern would take an unrealistic 32 trains to operate, because each train takes 94 minutes to go between SF and SJ. The hypothetical scenario still illustrates the magnitude of the effect of doubling frequency.

Add electrification: Score = 121 service points (+11%) -- Electrification is worth another +12 points relative to diesel, thanks to the shorter trip times that come from the higher acceleration capability of EMUs. Those savings accrue to a full ten minutes between SF and SJ for an all-stops local. Station dwell times are still booked at 45 seconds, a longer duration that reflects the lack of level boarding. Thanks to the faster trip times, the fleet requirement has dropped from 32 trains to 28 trains. Service speed saves money, not just on fleet size but also by increasing the hourly productivity of train crews (in terms of passenger-miles served).

Add Redwood City hub station: Score = 131 service points (+8%) -- If trains cannot pass each other, there is no room in such a frequent timetable for express service. A new four-track station at Redwood City, where express trains can overtake locals on opposite sides of the same station platform (so that passengers may transfer seamlessly between local and express) gives the best of both worlds: frequent service AND express service. For now, we'll assume this station has only two-track approaches, requiring trains to arrive and depart serially. In practice, this means every local must wait more than 5 minutes or the equivalent of two signal headways to let the express catch up before RWC and then pull ahead after RWC. The stopping patterns start to look like Caltrain's 2040 service vision.

Add Redwood City quadruple approach tracks: Score = 138 service points (+5%) -- If quadruple tracks are added approaching Redwood City from the north and south, then local and express trains can make parallel moves into and out of the hub station, removing the requirement for every local to wait there for five wasteful minutes. To unlock this benefit, the quadruple track overtake section needs to extend to one station on either side of RWC, so every local train can make productive use of those five minutes. In the Taktulator, we simulate this by having every local train stop at San Carlos and Atherton, which (despite its closure) stands in for a new Fair Oaks infill station at 5th Avenue. This suggests a hub station is about 1.7x more effective if it forms the center of a three-station quadruple track section. Having fully half your trains save five minutes is a huge service improvement!

Add level boarding: Score = 147 service points (+7%) -- Where electrification saved time in motion, level boarding saves time at rest by shaving 15 seconds of dwell time at each station, as step-free access smooths passenger boarding and alighting. Level boarding gives not only short dwell times but predictable dwell times (for example, wheelchairs don't take longer to board) so we can also tighten up the padding margin in the timetable, cut in this example from 12% to 7%. Interestingly, the end-to-end corridor times fall below a threshold that allows turning a train sooner, reducing fleet requirement from 28 to 24 trains. This isn't necessarily an effect of level boarding itself, and only illustrates that a series of small improvements can result in a discontinuous benefit when a certain threshold is reached.

Add SF Downtown Extension: Score = 250 service points (+70%) -- There are more jobs (over 100,000) located within a half mile of the Transbay Transit Center than there are jobs within a half mile of every other Caltrain station combined. This makes downtown SF a dominant node if added to the system, a fact that is reflected in our census-based weighting of available trips. No other improvement comes close.

Here is how these service improvements stack up against each other, plotted as the logarithm of the ratio of after/before scores, which gives you their relative impact. They can be constructed in a different order than imagined above, but the relative proportion of each improvement should remain approximately similar:

Bar graph of the relative service quality improvement of Caltrain capital projects

Here are some key takeaways:

  1. Grade separation projects do not improve train service. Exceedingly rarely, they do prevent a train delay, something that is not captured in this analysis. On the basis of the time metrics of a typical trip, however, the service improvement of grade separations is ZERO. This should factor strongly into how many billions we are collectively willing to spend on them relative to the other capital improvements discussed here.
  2. The benefits of electrification alone (without other improvements) are mediocre at best. On the basis of our time metrics, service quality is only improved by about 11% relative to an equivalent diesel scenario. Caltrain can't just finish the electrification project and call it good enough.
  3. The Redwood City hub station now in the planning stages is surprisingly beneficial to service quality. While packaged and sold as a grade separation with a bonus of expanding the train station, it is hard to overstate the service quality benefit of the new hub station. Even as planned by Caltrain (with two-track approaches from the north and south) the new station produces nearly as much service improvement as the entire electrification project.
  4. The Redwood City hub station as planned by Caltrain with two-track approaches is operationally ineffective. It can be juiced up to 1.7x more benefit to service quality by making it the center of a four-track overtake facility spanning just three stations: San Carlos, Redwood City and a new Fair Oaks infill station at 5th Ave. The southern portion of this four-track facility already exists today. Together with 4-track approaches, the Redwood City hub improves service quality by a greater proportion than the entire electrification project! That's why it is critical that planning for the Redwood City grade separations allow for four tracks throughout.
  5. Level boarding provides over half the service quality improvement of electrification, and is likely to be a much cheaper capital investment. However, it makes sense to do it after the hub station.
  6. The downtown extension in San Francisco will be a game changer for service quality. The transportation industrial complex knows this and will make us pay dearly for the DTX project. However, the additional billions for the PAX (Pennsylvania Avenue Extension, a city-desired grade separation) add absolutely nothing to service quality, and should never be allowed to be bundled with the DTX project. Every capital dollar should improve service quality.
  7. The Redwood City hub station (with four tracks, not two!) is worth one fourth of the service benefit of the DTX. That means we should (a) not be shy about spending capital dollars to build it and (b) stop selling it as a grade separation, because that isn't the story here-- it should be about a new infill station, seamless transfers, and better service quality system-wide.

As always, the analysis provided here can be quibbled with and improved upon, and you are encouraged to "do your own research" by trying out your own service patterns in the Taktulator.

13 March 2022

News Roundup, March 2022

It's been a while since the last post, but fear not this blog is still alive.

Caltrain's First Major Accident: on Thursday 10 March 2022, a southbound train was unable to stop before ramming into at least two rail-going flatbed crane trucks being used by an electrification construction crew. 13 people were injured with five requiring hospital treatment; thankfully there was no loss of life. With the new positive train control (PTC) system in place, this collision should never have happened. The fact that it did has drawn scrutiny from the National Transportation Safety Board, which dispatched an investigation team to the site of the accident in San Bruno. The causes of such accidents are often multiple, subtle, and complex, and it will take more than a year to assemble the evidence, identify root causes, and draw out lessons learned. NTSB staff reported some preliminary points at a press conference on March 11th:

  • The impact occurred at approximately 60 mph and the train came to a stop over a distance of over 500 feet.
  • The PTC system is designed to prevent train incursions into established work zones.
  • The PTC system was on and active on the accident train.

While we should be wary of speculation, it is possible to discuss additional relevant points:

  • Train 506 was due to depart Millbrae at 10:34 AM. If as stated the accident occurred just before 10:40 AM, then the train was several minutes behind schedule.
  • The head end of the train stopped at milepost 11.9, so impact occurred at about milepost 11.8.
  • Milepost 11.8 is adjacent to a staging area on the west side of the tracks that is used by the electrification contractor.
  • The location is less than a mile south of San Bruno curve, one of the sharpest curves on the entire peninsula rail corridor. The train would have traversed this curve no faster than the PTC-enforced maximum speed of 65 mph before accelerating again towards 79 mph after the curve.
  • The humped vertical profile of the San Bruno grade separation would have obstructed the train crew's view of the work crew's trucks until about milepost 11.1, at San Bruno Avenue.
  • At an average of 65 mph, the 0.7 miles from the point of initial visibility to the point of impact would have gone by in just under 40 seconds.
  • The 1.25% downhill grade towards the impact point would not have helped the train's emergency braking performance.

Unanswered questions include why were the construction vehicles and the train on the same track, why did the PTC system not prevent the collision, and whether there have ever been other near misses over the past several years of electrification construction. The NTSB report will tell.

May everyone hurt by this accident make a full recovery.

More Electrification Delays: while pole foundations are done, everything else is behind and slipping even from the new delayed schedule. The monthly reports for the project have been significantly abbreviated. The long pole in the tent is the grade crossing warning system, and it just so happens that the new program manager at Caltrain previously managed Denver's electrification project and has direct and personal experience with overcoming the great Denver grade crossing fiasco. From the December report to January, overhead contact system completion has slipped by 4 months. Oddly, after years of study and paying a nine-figure amount to PG&E for substation upgrades, the project is still embroiled in back-and-forth with the utility over how the large single-phase loads of accelerating and braking electric trains might throw the electric grid out of balance. One thing is clear, PG&E knows just how hard to squeeze Caltrain.

Electric Train Modifications: feature by feature, the EMUs are being downgraded to act like an old Bombardier bilevel train. The first EMU trainsets, numbers 3 and 4, are due in California sometime in April March 19th. They will sport two noteworthy changes not seen in any official photos or renderings. The upper set of doors have been sealed off (likely permanently) with window plug panels, and the automatic couplers have been downgraded to old-school AAR knuckle couplers.

Governance Politics: the three-county custody fight over Caltrain rages unabated, sucking all the oxygen away from critical planning for what comes after electrification. Momentum for the business plan effort seems to have stalled entirely. The two key upgrades yet to come are level boarding and a four-track elevated grade separation throughout downtown Redwood City, neither of which are being sufficiently attended to while the board's attention is fixated on questions of power and influence.

CBOSS Dumpster Fire Update: speaking of fires and PTC, the CBOSS case is still making its way through San Mateo County Superior Court (under case file 17CIV00786). Last year, Caltrain and Parsons (the CBOSS prime contractor) agreed to stop fighting each other and ganged up against Alstom (formerly GE Transportation Systems), the supplier of the flawed CBOSS software. Ten years after contract award, six years after breach of contract, and five years after lawsuits started flying, the case is coming close enough to trial that the parties have each prepared a trial brief that very nicely summarizes the making of this fiasco from their respective viewpoints. Here are hot-off-the-press direct links to the Caltrain & Parsons Trial Brief and the Alstom Trail Brief.

Update 3/19 - Board Workshop on Caltrain Finances: the slide deck for the upcoming board workshop to discuss what to do about the railroad's new fiscal reality (high fixed costs and only ~1/3 of the usual farebox revenue) is now posted. What is most remarkable is what is not in the slides, which are basically a giant shrug ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in the face of the deficit forecasts shown in slide 46. If this is truly an existential fiscal emergency, one wonders why the cost of assistant conductors is not on the budget negotiating table. In 2019, the cost of assistant conductors was $7 million/year, and has since grown proportionally with more train service and annual pay raises, likely to about $8.5 million/year for 2022. With a further service increase to 116 trains/day when electrification begins, the cost of assistant conductors will exceed $10 million/year in 2025. While Caltrain is vulnerable to its labor unions and reluctant to raise such a sensitive matter, the time has come for the second conductor to follow the fate of other redundant and obsolete train crew positions such as fireman and brakeman.

Battery EMUs: from the "are you insane?" department comes a minor bullet point on slide 59 of the same packet, where an area of focus for FY23 is to "Advance sustainability through completion of PCEP and further exploration of potential for battery EMUs." Please don't. The whole point of PCEP and EMUs is to not be seduced by world-unique technical solutions and to not haul around many tons of battery dead weight. The only area that needs focus is to further explore the provenance of this shockingly idiotic idea.